Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, or Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, is a church in Rome whose most famous feature is the crypt that houses the bones of over 4,000 friars in elaborate displays.
Visiting the museum and crypt of the Capuchins wasn't initially on our list of things to do but it ended up being a very transformative and healing experience for me. It was an unexpected and significant integration of my pagan and religious lifetimes, as was my entire experience in Rome.
I didn't expect much walking through the museum, as I was only really eager to see the crypt and bones. However, it was during my walk through the museum that I experienced a shift. This message came through in regards to paganism and religion and past life wounds:
It's time to make peace with your past. Who you thought hurt you in fact shared your beliefs. Forgive them and the seeming difference. The people who hurt you didn't follow the truth, nor practice the love. They were those who got lost and thought to create their own divine order. The holy ones are no less holy. Just because we call it something else, doesn't mean it is something else. It's the definition that creates separation.
Some visitors find the crypt to be creepy, but the only thing Elliott and I found creepy about the whole experience was a couple of 17th-century dolls made to depict baby Jesus. Let's just say doll making has come a long way since then! Some visitors describe the crypt as horrifying, but again, Elliott and I found that the feel of the crypt wasn’t morbid at all, but rather celebratory of life and a testament to the devotion and love the friars had for their fellow human beings. And that is precisely what the Capuchin order is about – love of Jesus and his sacrifice, and love for their fellow man. Elliott and I found the elaborate displays of the friars’ bones not a horrifying warning of death but rather a stark reminder that life is temporary and that there is eternal life beyond the bone. The Capuchin crypt is a potent reminder of our own mortality.
What stood out most to us from all of the detailed displays in the crypt was an hourglass with wings on either side, with the accompanying message being:
Time doesn't pass us by, it flies.
There were also many eight-pointed stars symbolizing eternity and infinity, the clear Christian belief in the resurrection. There were also many sacred hearts and flowers made from the bones, as well as the trinity symbol repeated throughout. All the friars wore their robes, hoods, and ropes with three knots.
Another powerful image for us was a skeleton holding a scythe and hanging from the ceiling, with the accompanying message being:
Life cuts everyone down like wheat in a wheat field.
In the other hand, the skeleton held the scales, showing that every soul would have their earthly deeds weighed.
I couldn't help but marvel and wonder at the time, effort and dedication it would have taken to create such displays. There are many theories as to why such displays were created. The most prominent theory is that a friar seeking asylum at the church during the French Revolution created the displays from the bones of friars exhumed from burial sites. But no one really knows why he did it. Was it a show a veneration? A display of artistic talent? Or a play on our mortality?
Whatever the reason, the crypt is interesting, intense, eye-catching, and, best of all, motivating as you come face to face with mortality and the vivid reminder that life is temporary. Overall, I would describe it as a positively chilling experience.
When Elliott and I stepped back outside we looked up and saw the words ‘time, time, time’ written in different tenses across the side of the building next to the church, and it reminded us of the hourglass with the wings. Here was another message that reminded us to be mindful of our mortality and to enjoy the life we lead, because, as it said in the crypt:
What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.